This makes two years in a row, consecutively, that the U.S. Postal Service has delivered my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot to the correct box and not inserted it into a 300-page holiday catalog. That’s a good sign for 2015 and appropriate celebratory measures were taken.
Any year now I’m confident the Hall will transition to electronic voting, but this is baseball, so one step at a time. This year’s innovation: For the first time, they will confirm receipt of ballots.
Before the ballot arrived, I knew I would want to vote for more candidates than the maximum of 10 the Hall permits. My first scan of the ballot, with no benefit of statistical analysis or divine wisdom, produced 14 players that would get my vote. So this year’s consideration was less about the usual issue — Hall worthiness — and more about distinguishing among worthies to cull the list to 10.
Cutting is something newspaper people know about, and we don’t like it. It simplifies, it misleads, it sometimes make you look like an idiot. So I decided to protect myself. For the first time, I used sabermetrician Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system (the humble acronym for Jaffe WAR Score) as my initial screen to get down to the difficult qualitative choices.
In previous years, I looked at lots of numbers to confirm or dispute my impressions, but mostly I relied on the eye test, my totally subjective judgment of whether a player looked like a Hall of Famer. This year, it turned out there wasn’t that much difference between the two, and there were areas of agreement that I found encouraging, not so much for the reliability of my vision as for the chances of certain players I’ve been supporting to no avail up until now.
This happy coincidence is not always the case. For example, when I did my JAWS work last year, I found Jack Morris down so low among the starting pitchers I had to add memory to my laptop to find him. His deficit to the JAWS average of starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame was massive. So I looked at some of the names above his and asked myself if I would rather have them start a big game. Guys like Mel Stottlemyre, Bartolo Colon, Camilo Pascual, Brad Radke, Jamie Moyer, Carlos Zambrano, Jimmy Key, and so on. The answer in all those cases was no.
The calculation of wins above replacement (WAR), whichever version you subscribe to, is too complex to permit easy diagnostics of the anomalies, but in Morris’s case, I imagined earned-run average was a major culprit. He ranks No. 394 at 3.90, putting him between Joe Nuxhall and Ben McDonald.
On the other hand, if you sort the list by wins, he bounds up to No. 44 all-time with 256. His neighbors here are Red Faber and Carl Hubbell, Hall of Famers both. Now, wins have become a deeply unfashionable stat for pitchers, owing to the many extraneous factors that affect them, but this is also slightly ironic because wins are what WAR allegedly measures.
Anyway, I’m not trying to re-litigate the Morris matter. His eligibility expired last year after he received 351 votes out of 571 ballots cast, or 61.5 percent. I think he has a pretty good shot to make it eventually through some iteration of the veterans committee because he was a horse and a hell of a competitor and for a while there, the dominant pitcher of the 1980s. But again, I digress. He’s a good example of the difference between quantitative and qualitative analytical methods in certain cases.
Let’s back up and explain the basics of the quantitative screen I used this year to get down to the serious calls. Here’s a link to the Baseball Reference explanation of JAWS; here’s one to the BR explanation of its version of WAR.
If you’re reading a 4,000-word post on this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballot marked “Part 1,” you probably know that WAR is a complicated formula — so complicated that it’s effectively impenetrable for non-math geeks — that attempts to boil down to a single number the overall value of a baseball player. It speaks to the combination of two human needs — certainty and simplicity. So long as the evaluation of players is based on many different categories, as it was for generations, it is messy, and the emphasis any one judge puts on each of those various categories can and often does change the outcome of the inquiry. That’s neither certain nor simple.
WAR’s many calculations and adjustments introduce subjectivity themselves — BR recently changed its definition of an “average” replacement player — or contribute subjectivity in the weight they are accorded in the overall formula. Since most fans like the sport a lot more than they like equations, especially complicated equations, they stop paying attention to the details pretty quickly. Like the passer rating in football, it’s a nice, simple number that many fans use and few can explain in detail. We have two main versions of WAR at present, which make slightly different subjective judgments along the way, and produce slightly different results.
At its most basic, WAR is an adding machine. Player A was X amount better than the average guy at his position, plug that into a formula and you get 2.4 extra wins for his team that year. Then you add up all those little premiums over the course of his career. Even though its modifications and adjustments are considered ameliorating factors, it rewards longevity in a big way — the more years of little numbers like that, the bigger the career total is going to be.
So, for example, Sandy Koufax, one of the best starting pitchers of all time according to pretty much anyone paying attention to the game when he was pitching, ranks No. 85 in the JAWS system, with a considerable deficit to the average JAWS score of starting pitchers already in the Hall of Fame. He’s down around a bunch of guys who aren’t in the Hall and aren’t likely to get there — Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Frank Tanana, Wilbur Wood, et al. The JAWS system attempts to compensate for the longevity bias of WAR by averaging a player’s career WAR with his “peak” WAR — the seven highest annual scores of his career. This is supposed to cover for players like Koufax, who were brilliant, but whose careers were cut short.
But, clearly, it doesn’t. Koufax’s peak WAR is higher than any of the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but not by enough to make much difference in the overall calculation. Luckily, there was no WAR when Koufax became eligible for the first time in 1972 and he was elected on the first ballot with 87 percent of the vote, leading a class that also included Yogi Berra and Early Wynn.
I bring this up because it also contributes to this year’s biggest anomaly when using the JAWS system, which is John Smoltz. The former Braves hurler is on the ballot for the first time, following by one year former teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, both of whom were elected on the first try. The voters and JAWS agreed on Maddux. Not so much on Glavine. Maddux ranks 10th all time on the JAWS meter, ahead of immortals like Bob Gibson and Warren Spahn, and pending immortals like Pedro Martinez. Glavine ranks 30th, behind all those guys, and behind a couple more on this year’s ballot — Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. JAWS counts Maddux as way above the average Hall of Famer at his position, Glavine as barely above average.
Smoltz ranks 58th, well below average for the Hall of Fame, down around guys like Jim Bunning and David Cone. This is mostly because he quit starting for a while to help his team. From 2002-04, Smoltz registered 144 saves with ERAs of 3.25, 1.12 and 2.76. He received MVP votes four times in his career, and three of them were after those three remarkable years as a closer. The Braves made the playoffs in all three seasons. He’s credited with 6.7 wins above replacement for those three seasons combined. He got more than that (7.3) in 1996 alone, his Cy Young year as a starter.
So Smoltz fares poorly in the JAWS Hall of Fame analysis, in part because he’s listed with the starters and no allowance is made for all the starts he gave up to become one of the best closers in the game. For those of us not yet willing to sacrifice our own observations entirely to the gods of quantitative analysis, Smoltz requires an eye-test adjustment this year, which we will get to in Part 2. For the purpose of culling the field of 34 down to a more manageable number, JAWS was quite useful in quantifying the eye test results.
1. 3B Aaron Boone
He’ll always have 2003, a moment seared into the memories of Red Sox fans who would not slay the beast for another year. Boone’s walkoff home run leading off the bottom of the 11th in Game 7 of the ALCS made him a Yankee hero, even though he played only 54 of his 1152 career games in Yankee pinstripes. His best days were in Cincinnati. He is ranked the 150th-best third baseman in big league history by his JAWS average (14.3). His deficit from the JAWS average for Hall of Famers at his position (40.7) is the greatest in this year’s class. The top comparable to him on Baseball Reference is Scott Brosius.
Every year, there are fans who squawk, “Why is he on the ballot?” I have known members of the screening committee and I agree with their bias toward inclusion. If you meet the basic requirements — a career of at least 10 seasons in the designated time period — I believe you ought to get your minimum one appearance on the ballot. A 10-year major league career is a big deal in any context other than this one. Appearing on the ballot once seems to me an appropriate reward. Boone won’t be back, and neither will the rest of the guys in this category.
2. 1B Tony Clark
Clark had a nice 15-year career with Tigers, Diamondbacks, Mets, Red Sox and Padres. He hit 251 homers with a lifetime .262 batting average and a career OPS of .824. The JAWS average for first basemen now in the Hall is 54.2. Clark’s is 14.2. That deficit (40.0) barely lost out to Boone’s for the title of No-hoper of the Year. His top comparable is Adam LaRoche.
3. SS Rich Aurilia
Aurilia played 15 seasons, mostly for the Giants, finishing with a long goodbye tour through Cincinnati, San Diego and Seattle. He was mostly a shortstop, but he played triple-figure games at each of the other infield positions as well. He had good power for an infielder, hitting double-figure home runs eight times, including an eyebrow-raising 37 in 2001, the year Barry Bonds hit 73 and a number of players looked like Popeye after the spinach. His JAWS deficit to Hall of Famers at his position is 37.3. No. 1 comparable: Brandon Phillips.
4. RF Jermaine Dye
Dye had some serious pop, hitting 44 homers for the White Sox, batting over .300 for the only time in his career and finishing fifth in MVP voting in 2006. He spent 14 years in the big leagues almost equally divided among the Royals, White Sox and A’s, with a nightcap in Atlanta. His deficit to the JAWS average of right fielders in the Hall is 36.4.
5. SP Jason Schmidt
Schmidt was an average starter for most of the first decade of his career, never pitching to an ERA under 4.00 until arriving in San Francisco in the latter part of the 2001 season. Quite suddenly, at the age of 30, he became an elite pitcher for the Giants, going 17-5 with a National League-leading ERA of 2.34. He finished second in Cy Young voting that year and fourth the following year, when he went 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA. As a result of this renaissance in San Francisco, the Dodgers gave him a big free-agent deal in 2007 — three years, $47 million. Alas, Schmidt blew out his shoulder and pitched just 43 mostly ineffective innings over two seasons for L.A. before calling it quits. He comes in at No. 284 on the starting pitchers’ JAWS list. His deficit to existing Hall of Famers is 33.4.
6. LF Cliff Floyd
Floyd was the 14th overall pick of the 1991 draft, and while he had a 17-year stay in the majors, he never became the star that early comparisons to Willie McCovey seemed to promise. He drove in more than 100 runs only once and hit as many as 30 homers twice. He was bedeviled by injuries and ended up playing for seven teams. Still, he finished with a career OPS of .840. His top comparable on Baseball Reference is Aubrey Huff. His JAWS Hall of Fame deficit is 27.9.
7. CF Darin Erstad
Erstad was a marvelous athlete whom the Angels made the first pick of the 1995 draft out of Nebraska. He was the punter for Tom Osborne’s ’94 Cornhuskers’ national championship team. Erstad arrived in the majors a year later and finished sixth in rookie-of-the-year voting despite playing only 57 games. He was an all-star at 24 and again at 26, receiving MVP votes both years. He was a five-tool player on the brink of stardom. After batting an astonishing .355 with a league-leading 240 hits in 2000, he never hit .300 again. After putting up double-figure home run totals in five of his first seven seasons, he never hit more than seven after the age of 28. His hustling style and proclivity for leaving his feet produced chronic issues with his shoulders, hamstrings and ankles. For most of the latter part of his career, he was battling one injury or another. His JAWS deficit to center fielders in the Hall is 26.7. On the bright side, he went back to Nebraska as a volunteer assistant for the baseball team in 2011 and Osborne, then the athletic director, named him head coach a year later. His top comparable at 23 was Jeff Bagwell. Ten years later, it was Mark Kotsay.
8. RP Eddie Guardado
Guardado would be a long way from Hall consideration anyway, but the fact that he’s a relief pitcher makes it impossible. He was a decent piece out of the pen for the Twins for years who suddenly became a closer, and a good one, for a four-year stretch from 2002-05. He was an all-star in ’02 and ’03, putting up a league-leading 45 saves in ’02 and following it with 41 the next year. The result was a nice free-agent deal with the Mariners and two more good years before he ran out of fuel. He’s No. 53 in career saves with 187. His JAWS deficit is 22.1. In the history of baseball, five relief pitchers have been inducted, so if you’re Eddie Guardado, you have no shot.
9. RP Troy Percival
Percival was a stud closer for a long time, so you’d think he’d have a chance, but keep in mind he’s way behind Lee Smith in the JAWS rankings and Smith got only 30 percent of the vote in his 12th season of eligibility last year. Percival is in the top 10 in career saves — No. 9 with 358. But again, the standard is the five incumbents — Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers. Mariano Rivera will make it six when he’s eligible. Percival ranks behind them all, and behind Smith, too. In fact, his JAWS average is worse than those of Steve Reed, Dick Drago and Dave Giusti. It’s just not happening. His deficit to the Hall average at his position is 18.1
My kingdom for 5 percent
1. RF Sammy Sosa
You wouldn’t think that one of only two players in major league history to hit more than 60 homers in a season twice, one of only eight to hit more than 600 in a career, would be in any danger of falling off the ballot in just his third season of eligibility, but Sosa treated his entire career like an SNL skit. Like Bonds, he used performance-enhancing drugs to such excess that he became a massive, hulking, comic book parody of his former self, then pretended he didn’t understand English when hauled before Congress to explain this amazing transformation. He got 12.5 percent of the vote in his first year and 7.2 percent last year. Half as great a loss of support this year would send him on his way. Even if he’d done it honestly, his JAWS average of 51 wouldn’t justify his election. The average of the right fielders already in the Hall is 58.1. Even through the eyes of a Cubs fan, Sammy doesn’t pass the eye test.
2. 1B Don Mattingly
It doesn’t seem fair that you could drop off the ballot for lack of support the day you’re dropping off anyway by virtue of having been there 15 years without getting elected, but that is a possibility for Donnie Baseball. His election return of 8.2 percent of the vote last year was his lowest total in 14 years of eligibility. He hasn’t been above 20 percent since his second year on the ballot. For a stretch in the 1980s, he was as good as it got, but back trouble limited him to just four years of WAR of 5 or more, and that’s nowhere near enough. He also faces competition from a bunch of other first basemen who aren’t going to make it but have better numbers than he does. On the JAWS list, he ranks behind Norm Cash, Gil Hodges, John Olerud and Will Clark, none of whom are in the Hall. He also ranks behind Carlos Delgado and Fred McGriff, who are on the current ballot and also have little or no shot. His JAWS deficit to the Hall average first sacker is 15.3.
3. 1B Carlos Delgado
Delgado isn’t a close call according to JAWS — he’s 14.8 average WAR behind the existing Hall standard at first — but he was a very productive power hitter for a long time, so you wouldn’t think he’d be in any danger of missing the minimum to remain on the ballot. He has a career OPS of .940 and drove in at least 87 runs in 13 consecutive seasons. Nevertheless, it’s a very strong ballot and Delgado’s JAWS average ranks below McGriff’s. McGriff fell to 11.7 percent of the vote last year, losing half the support he got just two years before. If there’s an argument to be made that Delgado is one of the top 10 players on this year’s ballot, I’m not sure what it is.
4. RF Brian Giles
I’m also not sure why Giles does better on the JAWS tote board than Delgado. I’d take Delgado every time, although Giles was certainly a nice offensive player. Delgado had way more homers and RBI, a slightly better OPS+ and trailed in batting average by 10 points. It is true he also struck out a lot more than Giles, but that’s the price of that power (1512 RBI to 1078; 473 homers to 278). Both were below-average defenders, but Delgado somewhat further below average. Giles is a classic very good player who is nevertheless significantly short of the Hall standard by both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Like Delgado, you would expect him to exceed the minimum necessary to stay on for another year if the ballot weren’t so loaded. And he still should. His JAWS deficit among right fielders already in the Hall is 14.0.
1. 1B Mark McGwire
The only thing that saves Sosa from appearing here, where he belongs, is the fact that he might fall off the ballot altogether, earning him a spot in the previous category. McGwire, the only player other than Sosa to hit more than 60 homers in a season twice, comes dangerously close to joining him there. But Mac managed 11 percent of the vote last year, so I’m guessing he survives again, although his number has come down from 23.7 percent in 2010. I realize there is a fair amount of sentiment among sabermetricians that there is no such thing as right and wrong, or we’re not worthy to assess it, or only numbers matter, or something along those lines. If you’re interested in why I don’t agree with this, I went into some depth about it in my post on last year’s ballot. McGwire, by the way, has a small deficit — 2.3 — to the average JAWS score of first basemen now in the Hall.
2. SP Roger Clemens
Clemens’ numbers are ridiculous, which, in his case, is not just an expression. At the age of 42, suddenly he was as good as he had ever been. In fact, he won the ERA title with the best mark of his career (1.87). In court, personal trainer Brian McNamee laid out his doping program in gruesome detail. Clemens’ able defense team got him off perjury charges, but that’s not the same as being innocent. According to JAWS, he’s the third-best pitcher of all time, behind Walter Johnson and Cy Young. His surplus to the average starter in the Hall is 41.5, which would be the highest on the ballot if it weren’t for . . .
3. LF Barry Bonds
Clemens redux. Thanks to the journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and their book Game of Shadows, we know pretty much exactly what Bonds took and why. Like Clemens, he had a chronology-defying, chemistry-enabled, Greek God-like renaissance very late in his career, winning four consecutive MVP awards at the ages of 36, 37, 38 and 39. We had never seen anything like it before and, assuming Rob Manfred is slightly more on the ball than Bud Selig — a low bar — we will never see anything like it again. Like Clemens, as many have pointed out, he was probably a Hall of Famer before he started cheating, but those sportsmanship and integrity criteria established by the Hall don’t have the luxury of time travel. His surplus to the average JAWS score of Hall of Fame left fielders is 64.3, a number almost as big as his body in those days.
1. Nomar Garciaparra
Nomar was a stud shortstop in a very impressive generation. Imagine a three-year stretch in which rookies named Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra enter the league playing the same position. The Red Sox made Nomar a first-round pick, the 12th overall, in 1994. Three years later, he was rookie of the year, an all-star and eighth in MVP voting. At the age of 23, he hit .306 with 30 home runs and 98 RBI. The next year was even better — .323, 35, 122 — and he finished second in the MVP voting to Juan Gonzalez. He won the batting title each of the next two years, at .357 and .372. If this was not the runup to a Hall of Fame career, it was hard to imagine why not. But it probably wasn’t. Injuries would turn Nomar old before his time and his 30s were nothing like his 20s. The average of his career WAR and peak WAR — 43.6 — is 11.1 below the average of shortstops already in the Hall. You can certainly make an argument for him. His JAWS rating puts him between Luis Aparicio and Joe Tinker, both of whom are in. The improvement in the offensive output at the position since then has changed the calculus.
2. 1B Fred McGriff
You look at those career numbers and it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t belong. Seven homers shy of 500. Twenty-one consecutive seasons of double-digit homers. An OPS just short of .900. MVP votes following eight different seasons. And yet, when you add them all up, he’s a full 10 wins over replacement short of the average for first basemen already in the Hall. In fact, he ranks behind Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Will Clark, none of whom are enshrined. Of 20 first basemen in Cooperstown, McGriff’s JAWS average is better than four, worse than 16. He’d been getting about 20 percent of the vote in his first four years on the ballot, then fell to 11.7 percent last year as the ballot strengthened. Probably won’t do a lot better this year.
3. RF Gary Sheffield
Sheff had such a long, productive career, one is tempted to think of him as the Don Sutton of hitters, a guy who eventually makes it on sheer volume. It could happen, but advanced metrics don’t help him. He accumulated surprisingly modest wins above replacement value during his career and his JAWS average of 49 falls 9.1 short of the average of right fielders already inducted. Sheff’s average is worse than those of Bobby (not Barry) Bonds, Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans, none of whom is in. With more than 500 home runs, a career batting average over .290 and an OPS over .900, Sheff passes the eye test, at least for me. He might begin to build support after the current wave of stars passes. For now, he just has to hang around.
Coming in Part 2: The final fifteen